Omoiyari Interview with Dr. Anna Leahy:
Director of the Tabula Poetica Series
at Chapman University
Anna Leahy is the author of Constituents of Matter, which won the Wick Poetry Prize and is published by Kent State University Press. Her poems appear widely in literary journals, most recently Barn Owl Review, The Laurel Review, and Margie. She edited Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom, which launched the New Writing Series at Multilingual Matters. Her essays about teaching and writing appear widely, including in the latest issue of Mid-American Review (co-authored with Larissa Szporluk) and in the newly published Does the Writing Workshop Still Work? She co-writes Lofty Ambitions blog (http://loftyambitions.wordpress.com).
KL: Congratulations on the success of Tabula Poetica, the poetry reading series at Chapman University! Would you share a little about your upcoming guest poets and M.F.A. events?
Anna Leahy: We piloted the Tabula Poetica series in Spring 2009 with three wonderful poets: Jen Bervin (also a visual artist), Richard Deming (also a literary scholar), and Nancy Kuhl (also a library curator). That experiment went so well that we established the Poetry Reading Series as an annual fall event in 2009, with you among the fantastic poets in that line-up. In Fall 2010, Pulitzer Prize winner Rae Armantrout will kick off the series on September 14. I contacted her before she won the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award, but those prizes help the visibility of our project. Two other California poets follow: Patty Seyburn (she was awarded a Pushcart Prize) on September 28 and Lynne Thompson (Director of Employee and Labor Relations at UCLA) on October 12. Our final visiting poet is Allison Joseph on November 9; she’s an Illinoisian, an editor of Crab Orchard Review, and great with students. Our series concludes on November 30 with a reading by Chapman University MFA students. All the Poetry Talks and Readings are free and open to the public. The Poetry Talks are at 2:30pm in Argyros Forum 201, and the Readings (with refreshments) are at 5:00pm in Leatherby Libraries. For more info, visit Tabula Poetica at http://www.chapman.edu/poetry.
KL: In the classroom, what are your favorite writing exercises and texts to teach?
Anna Leahy: I use Robert Pinsky’s The Sounds of Poetry quite a bit, because I want to forefront to students that writing poetry is about formal choices—even when it’s free verse—even more than it is about those spontaneously overflowing emotions. The poet’s self will always be part of the poem, so I like to distract students from themselves with a focus on form. For advanced students, James Logenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line is a good follow-on to complicate the issues. I read widely myself, and I urge my students to do that too. I often bring in poems for imitation exercises. Larrisa Szporluk and I wrote a conversation essay called “Good Counsel” in which we discuss imitation as a first step in the creative process, a step toward deep imagination. Dorianne Laux’s “The Idea of Housework” is a fun poem to use; students can start with the opening lines “What good does it do anyone / to…” and go from there, riffing on things they feel obligated to do or to have. Nancy Kuhl’s The Wife of the Left Hand has several poems with repeated phrases that structure the given poem as a prayer, wish, or lament; students can use that repeated structure with different subject matter. What’s great about such exercises is sharing the imitations afterward to demonstrate that, even when everyone starts with the same line or prompt, each poem is different. If there are phrases common across versions, most students recognize on their own that they may have reached for the easy cliché. In the long run, this sort of exercise teaches students to read closely and selfishly.
KL: Your first full-length collection, Constituents of Matter, received the Wick Poetry Prize. Are you working on any current projects?
Anna Leahy: I have a second manuscript, Among Virgins and Harlots, that I’ve sent out, and it’s been a finalist in a handful of contests. I’ve started writing poems beyond it, though, so I’ve not sent it out much in recent months. I’d hoped to revise it this summer, but planning the reading series has taken more time than I’d expected and, to my surprise, I’ve been writing memoir essays. The move from Illinois to California two years ago felt like a big shift that’s led me to this new form. One of the essays was recently a finalist in the Arts & Letters competition, which was just enough of an external nod to make me think I might be on to something. That said, I’m still a poet, and Chapman University has generously awarded me a one-course reallocation in the spring so that I can give my poetry manuscript the attention I think it needs and deserves. I’d like to experiment with persona poems to an even greater extent when I return to that project.
KL: What’s your advice to people who wish to launch a new reading series on their campus?
Anna Leahy: Absolutely the first thing you must do is be friendly with every Administrative Assistant you meet—in your department, in the dean’s office, in the public relations and development offices. And take time to meet every Administrative Assistant you can. Unless your PhD is in event planning, these are the people you need to help you make the reading series a success. Coordinating a reading series is more work than it probably should be, so it’s easier and more successful when you have a team behind you (and often ahead of you). I have a few other recommendations, based on hindsight. Make up a name early; it took us weeks to settle on Tabula Poetica after we (somewhat accidentally) piloted a series, but having a name makes people think you have a project. Establish a Facebook group; maybe 232 members isn’t huge (yet!), but it helps get the word out, and students especially use Facebook to track events. Collaborate; Tabula Poetica worked with the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education to do a reading from Night just before Elie Wiesel visited campus, and we hosted a bilingual reading by MFA students in English and undergraduates in German as part of the Freedom Without Walls program. Look into hiring a student worker (graduate assistant, work-study undergrad, whatever); Natalie d’Auvergne is this year’s Graduate Assistant, and even over the summer, she’s been working to generate a list of area high schools and libraries and write reviews of books by this fall’s visiting poets. These are things I’d advise because I happened upon them, but wish someone had told me sooner. Mostly, I’d say just do something to promote poetry. These are difficult times for the arts, so those of us who can do something should. Poets are generous people, by and large, and you never know who’s out there waiting for a poetry event, either because they secretly write poems or they have fond memories of a grandmother reading poetry to them. Poetry, because we are language users and metaphorical thinkers, is one of the most human of endeavors.